Ranking of retailers stays static — so why is that worth deep analysis?

The Stores Magazine editors want us to believe it was all about IT

walmart
Credit: Mike Mozart

When Stores Magazine released its annual Top 100 Retailers list on Wednesday (July 1), the list was pretty much the same as last year. Had it been shaken up, interesting analysis could be had explaining why. But when a list is that static, it's hard to read much into it. That didn't stop the editors of Stores, though.

The list itself, which the magazine has done for years and which has become the gold standard of retail lists in the U.S., shows the top 10 retailers, in sequence, as Walmart, Kroger, Costco, Home Depot, Walgreen, Target, CVS, Lowe's, Amazon and Safeway. That's pretty much the list from last year. Target dropped from fourth last year to sixth this year, and Home Depot moved up one notch (from fifth to fourth), but those are the only top 10 changes.

It's hard to explain the absence of change, but Stores Magazine — published by the National Retail Federation — went the IT route. The chains "held their top spots thanks to one common denominator: a customer-centric, omnichannel focused business model." Really? So all of these chains deployed this model in the same way? And has any retailer in the last 100 years ever said their strategy was not customer-centric? 

Given that all major chains also pay lip service — and a little actual action — to merged channels, that's not much of an explanation either.

Let's try and explore this a little deeper. Of the millions of people who shopped at Walmart last year, why have so many of them continued to shop at Walmart this year? If we ask those shoppers — you know, the ones who actually spent the almost $509 billion to keep Walmart on top — I think pricing and product assortment would rank a lot higher than "customer-centric" or "omnichannel."

First off, people shop at Walmart because they perceive the chain as customer-centric? That doesn't even pass the laugh test. It's also not as if any shoppers inside a Walmart on any given day went there because of an admiration for how the chain's mobile strategy shares data with its online operation.

The report almost reads as though someone decided that the story would touch on the key buzzwords of the report's sponsors, regardless of what the retail listings showed. One gets the feeling that had the list been radically different from last year's, the reason would have been that the rising chains more effectively embraced customer-centricity or omnichannelness.

In discussing Amazon's continued top 10 position, the report explained its staying power this way: "Physical store operators are experiencing considerable digital success, while online merchants — including Amazon — are expanding with showrooms, pop-up shops and other ways of meeting shoppers face-to-face." That's very true, but that is a long-term strategy. Amazon's position on the list was based on global revenue, which was overwhelmingly its online operations. The revenue from Amazon's "showrooms, pop-up shops and other ways of meeting shoppers face-to-face" was far less than the proverbial rounding error. Amazon's $49.4 billion in revenue came from online shoppers, almost all of whom didn't know — nor care — about the e-tailer's physical experiments.

Put another way, those Amazon efforts are fine things, but they in no way explain its positioning on the list.

As a journalist, I understand and sympathize. The list has to be accompanied by a long story, even if there's not a lot to say about the list. The list was great and it's an important service to the industry. But trying to explain the lack of change by pointing to non-differentiated trends is not much of a service to anyone.

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